Introductory Note:

When creating a rule of life, it’s tempting to pack in all the things we think an ideal Christian should do. But in doing so, our rule, meant to be a guide to freedom, can become a harsh ruler in both senses of the word—a joyless dictator, and a measuring stick against which we fall short. In this article, Chris Webb provides practical tips for forming a life-giving and realistic rule of life based on the six streams from Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water.

—Renovaré Team

Living by Rhythms

We are all creatures of habit.

In the summer of 2008, a group of researchers from Boston published a study in the scientific journal Nature, in which they followed the movements of over 100,000 people by anonymously tracking their cell phone signals. They found that we tend to revisit the same places, at the same times, with an astonishing (and almost monotonous) predictability. In other words, if you like cappuccinos, chances are high that you visit the same coffee shop most days, and usually at the same time in your daily routine.

There is a pattern to our activities. We build structure into our days. We create family traditions and rituals. Our churches use liturgies,” even if we never write them down — we tend to follow the same order of worship week by week. Even though we often rejoice in spontaneity and excitability, the truth is we like routines; we prefer order to chaos.

We live by rhythms.

Anthony and the Angel

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a collection of stories from early Christian Egypt, tells a fascinating tale about structure and rhythms. Anthony of Egypt was a young man who went to live in the harsh desert regions east of the Nile with one simple yet daring goal in mind: to strip away every distraction this world had to offer so he could seek God with his whole heart. Anthony pursued life with God at a level of intensity most of us find difficult to imagine — a pursuit which led to incredible spiritual experiences: visions of Christ, battles with evil spirits, and divine revelations.

Anthony, though, became deeply discouraged, uncertain that all his efforts were really achieving anything. He was still deeply conscious of his sins, still (at times) felt far from God. He turned his anxiety into prayer: Lord, I want to be made whole by your grace, but this discouragement will not leave me alone. What can I do? How can I be made whole?”

As he finished praying he opened the door of his cell and caught sight of an angel sitting outside patiently weaving reed baskets. After a while the angel set aside his work, stood up, and stretched out his hands to pray. Then when he had finished, he sat down and began weaving again. As Anthony watched from his doorway, the angel turned to him, smiled, and said, Anthony, just do this — and then you will be made whole.”

To Anthony, the point was immediately clear. The angel did not bring another astounding experience, another revelation or vision. Instead, he modeled a rhythm of living. Work and pray. Work and pray. Ora et labora. Just do this and do it this way, quietly and faithfully — and you will find the wholeness of life you seek.

An Intentional Rhythm

What Anthony had discovered was that our inclination to live by rhythms can be turned to our advantage: it can become a catalyst for profound spiritual growth. Every day we live is like a miniature picture of our whole life: all our priorities are somehow reflected in the way we choose to invest the few hours between each sunrise and sunset. 

The way we structure our days not only reveals our character and priorities, it can also help to shape them. We make some choices because of who we are, but others because of who we wish to become. And so apprentices of Jesus have long realized that we can express our desire to follow him not only in particular activities — spiritual practices and disciplines — but also in the routines and rituals of life. 

We may be wired to live by rhythms, but we can intentionally set the beat: we can structure our daily living as a loving response to the grace of God in Christ.

Regula Vitae

In the Christian tradition, this desire to intentionally structure our lives as Christ followers was usually expressed through the regula vitae, the Rule of Life” (the Latin is pronounced ray-goo-lah vee-tay”). 

In our contemporary society, when we hear the word rule many of us immediately begin thinking of laws, commands, regulations, and directives. The more theologically-minded might bristle: is this an attempt to subvert the grace of God in favor of a system of merit and reward: obey the rules and God will love you? Others, steeped in our culture of fierce individualism and independence, might balk for different reasons: we have become rules-averse.” No one, we say, can tell me how to live my life. I want freedom and choice, not the constriction of laws and commands.

But a regula vitae, a Rule of Life, is neither an attempt to prove ourselves to God, nor to impose anything on other people. 

The Latin word regula originally described a wooden strip with markings which could be used in construction or drawing. A regula was not the rule we find on the statute books — it was the rule we used in geometry classes to help make the sides of our triangles straight and true. In the same way, a regula vitae is not a set of instructions telling us how me must live. It is a description of how we might live. A Rule of Life outlines a pattern of living which is immersed in Christ, and invites us to shape ourselves to it — to become straight and true. Those wooden rules we used in school never commanded us to draw triangles, nor told us where the triangles should be drawn, nor did they make us draw rectangles instead. But, when we wanted to draw a triangle well, they suddenly became invaluable.

1. Exploring the Rhythm

I would like to encourage you to take part in a modest three-part experiment with me.

In the first stage of our experiment we determine our current rhythms of life. This is a very simple exercise, yet one which can be both revealing and surprising.

Take a blank sheet of paper and a pen, and write a heading at the top of the page: Daily.” Under this heading, write down anything you can think of which is part of your daily pattern of life. Most of what you write will be fairly mundane: brush teeth,” or eat breakfast.” No matter. Try to capture it all, and be as honest as you can. You might wish you prayed for two hours every morning, but if the truth is otherwise, write, Three minutes of prayer in the car.” It may not be inspiring, but tell it like it is.

Next, write a second heading: Weekly,” and under that heading add anything which is part of your weekly routine which has not already been captured under the Daily” heading. After that, complete a list of Monthly” items, and finally an Annual” list.

Lastly, sit back and take a look through what you have written. This is your current regula vitae, the rhythm and pattern of your life as it stands right now. As you re-read it, ask yourself this: is there scope here for expressing my love for Jesus more fully, more deeply, more passionately? Could I integrate my desire to follow Christ more completely into this daily routine? For most of us, the chances are good that the answer would be, Yes.” And attempting to describe what that might look like will be the focus of the second part of our experiment.

2. Drafting a Rule

Now take a second blank sheet of paper, and set it alongside the first. On this sheet I am going to invite you to write six headings (which is quite a few, but you will only need enough space under each to write two or three lines).

The six headings are:

  • Contemplative
  • Holiness
  • Charismatic
  • Social Justice
  • Evangelical
  • Incarnational

Those of you who are more familiar with Renovaré’s teaching and materials will recognize the six streams of Christian discipleship described in Richard Foster’s book Streams of Living Water, which form the basis of many of Renovaré’s conferences and materials. At Renovaré, we use these six headings (which will each be described in more detail below) to provide a rounded description of the character of Jesus, which we see reflected in the life of his body, the Church.

As we follow Jesus, and immerse ourselves in his grace-giving presence, we find ourselves gradually becoming more like Christ, and growing in each of these six areas. And as our passions and character are aligned with those of Jesus, so we increasingly become intentional about expressing each of these aspects of his life in our walk with him.

For the second part of our experiment, I am going to lead you through a reflection on the patterns and rhythms of your life in the light of each of these six areas, and to ask two simple questions:

  • How is this aspect of the character of Christ already expressed in my life?
  • How could this aspect of the character of Christ be more fully expressed in my life?

Under each heading, I suggest that you write one or two (no more) simple statements of intention, which express in concrete terms how your desire to follow Jesus can be expressed in your daily living — either by describing something you already do, or by outlining something you could be doing.

Moderation

We need to remind ourselves that there is all the difference in the world between what I could be doing” and what I fantasize about doing.” All of us enjoy spiritual fantasies from time to time. In our dreams, we have all been spiritual giants, absorbed in prayer and Bible reading every morning for hours before dawn. But the exercise we are now engaged in is about our real lives in the real world — and it will only have value insofar as we remember that.

So, as you seek to articulate, alongside what you are already doing, those things you could be doing under each of these six headings, may I offer a few words of advice?

  • Keep it simple and specific. Stay within the boundaries of reality. You are more likely to read a portion of Scripture some evenings than to read the whole Bible in a week.
  • Do not just describe your life as it is now, but do not stray too far from that either. Allow some room for growth, but remember: there are no prizes to win. Practice modesty and moderation.
  • A helpful rule of thumb: do not write too much. One or two ideas under each heading is enough. If you cannot compress everything you write onto one side of an index card, it is probably too much.

3. The Six Streams

Now we will look together at each of those six areas of our walk with Christ, and reflect on how they might find expression in the rhythms of our daily lives. We are going to make a rough first draft of a regula vitae, a personal
Rule of Life. Keep it simple and specific. Stay within the boundaries of reality.

Contemplative

How do I intend to seek to be open to, and immersed in, the presence of God? How will I pray and worship?

Right away, we need to be very careful. When sketching out a Rule of Life, it is in answering this question that we are most likely to indulge in unrealistic spiritual heroics. It would be inexpressibly wonderful to spend four hours every day in prayer. But which of us ever will? On the other hand, most of us can find ten minutes every day for prayer (even if that means setting the morning alarm clock a few minutes earlier). You are far more likely to successfully build a modest rhythm of prayer into your day than to utterly reorganize your life around hours of devotion.

It helps to think in specific terms about what your prayer might look like, and not only how long you will devote to praying. If your intention is to spend ten minutes every day in prayer, when and where will you pray? Will you include worship, singing, intercession, silence? Is Bible reading going to be a focus of your prayer? Will you make use of some prayer resource, such as the Daily Office used in the liturgical churches? Try to find a rhythm that works well now. If your pattern of prayer changes naturally over the months and years, simply rewrite your Rule to reflect that — it is not carved in stone.

Holiness

How do I intend to cultivate habits of holy living, and learn to resist temptation?

A good Rule is a positive statement, a rhythm of living — not a list of actions to avoid. This is not the place to detail your vices and secret sins, together with a resolution to abstain from them. Of course, these besetting spiritual illnesses are precisely what we hope to see healed as we open ourselves more fully to God’s grace, and the purpose of the Rule is to pattern our lives so that we can be as open as possible. But resolving not to sin is usually simply a pious hope (and an intention to solve the problem ourselves anyway, rather than submit to God’s gracious healing).

One of the key disciplines which helps us grow in grace as we resist temptation is self-denial. Our rhythm of spiritual living should seek to take seriously the practices of fasting, silence, solitude, submission, and service— anything that requires us to set aside our own appetites, desires, and will in favor of God or another person. Silence and solitude, for example, give us the opportunity to refrain from the constant process of managing our public image, and allow us simply to become ourselves in God’s merciful presence. Service and submission teach us ways of preferring others to ourselves, dethroning us from the center of our universe for a short while.

The other crucial discipline we should consider is confession. A period of honest self-examination, leading to a time of confession (whether to God or a gracious fellow Christian) helps us put our sins into perspective. Reflection helps us to understand how deeply we have wounded ourselves, others, and God. But, mercifully, we also discover the immeasurable love and forgiveness of God who sets our sins as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12).

Charismatic

How can I allow the Holy Spirit to minister through me?

Before we can minister to anyone, we must first commit ourselves to them. Paul reminds us that to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). So before I can start offering my spiritual gifts to others, I must have offered myself. My rhythm of life needs to make explicit the ways in which I will engage with the community of God’s people (and the wider world, although we will spell that out more in the Incarnational section below). We begin by asking: how will I show my commitment to the particular Christian communities to which God has
called me?

Only then can we find appropriate ways of expressing the gifts God has given us, always remembering that a Rule seeks to establish a rhythm of daily living, not to describe everything we might ever do. The Spirit blows where he wills, and offers his gifts through us in his own time, according to his own desire. I will seek opportunities to use my gift of prophecy” might form part of a good rule, but I will prophesy every day” would not!

Social Justice

How can I act justly and love mercy” as I walk humbly” with my God (Micah 6:8)? How can my life contribute to the health of my society and world?

There are a myriad of ways of expressing God’s compassion for this broken world in our own lives. For some, this will mean involvement in a political party or group; for others, work with a non-profit or development agency, whether paid or voluntary; and for still others, a connection with local community initiatives: soup kitchens, playgroups, counseling services. This area also challenges us to think about lifestyle issues, which may find expression in a personal Rule: will I embrace habits of simplicity, or consider my impact on the global climate, or commit to purchasing fair trade food?

Whatever the nature of our response, we are reminded that following Christ is not a purely inward matter isolated from the pain of the world around us. We are drafting a personal Rule of Life, but not a private one; our intention to live as apprentices of Jesus must be worked out in the public, social, and political realms. God’s grace is given not only to change us, but to touch others through us. As the poet John Donne said, No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main … I am involved in Mankind.”

Evangelical

How am I allowing the voice of God to speak to me, and through me? How am I engaging and expressing Scripture?

A very important part of this is, of course, our reading of the Bible, and a good personal Rule should seek to reflect that. Remember, though, that we are not being paid by the page. Sheer volume of consumption is not the aim. It would be far better to spend ten minutes soaking in a single verse from the Psalms, until we are lost in wonder and praise of God, than to spend two hours mowing through Deuteronomy and walking away feeling we had mastered it. As elsewhere, moderation is everything.

It is also worth thinking about the ways in which we share the fruit of that engagement with Scripture. Every day presents us with opportunities to share our faith — with our family and friends, with work colleagues and neighbors, with other Christians and with those who do not share our relationship with Christ. In the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves, what are those opportunities, and how can we express an intention to make the most of them?

Incarnational

How can I know the extraordinary grace of God through the common matter of everyday living? How can my life become a sacramental experience?

The classic definition of a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” It makes grace tangible, revealing the presence and life of God in our material world. Broken bread is an invitation to participate in the brokenness of Christ crucified; baptismal water makes visible the cleansing mercy of God washing through us. For twenty centuries Christians have argued and divided over the mechanics of the sacraments — but we have always agreed that, however it happens, in some way these materials, this physical stuff, serves to make God present and real to us.

The sacraments, in turn, become signs to us of the greatest sacrament: creation. Everything that exists is an outward and visible symbol of God’s loving grace. And so every aspect of our lives has the potential to become holy. We all — whether as postal workers, CEO’s, homemakers, or grocery clerks — live sacred lives in a God-blessed world. Our personal Rule will
reflect this. We need to consider how we will be connected with the sacramental life of our Christian community. But we also need to think about our daily work and play, our families and neighborhood, the contexts that make up our mundane, everyday world — and consider how they might become for us the place where God is made visible. This is, perhaps, the most challenging calling of all.

Putting It Together

When you have worked through these six areas, what might your Rule of Life look like? I know from personal experience how hard it can be to outline a concrete pattern of life. When I first drew up a personal Rule of Life as part of my preparation to become a Franciscan, I found it helpful to see someone else’s Rule, to get an idea of what I was working towards. So I took a moment to rearrange my own personal Rule under the six headings described above. This was the result:

A Personal Rule of Life

Contemplative
Pray the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer.
Make a retreat once every year.

Holiness
Fast until the evening meal one day every week.
Practice an examination of conscience” once a week.

Charismatic
Worship together with the Church every Sunday, whenever possible.
Participate in the Franciscan community, including spiritual direction.

Social Justice
Practice simplicity: give generously and travel light.
Practice hospitality: open my home to all.

Evangelical
Read Scripture daily.
Study at least one other Christian book each month.

Incarnational
Participate in the celebration of the Eucharist on Sundays and holy days, whenever possible.
Seek to serve and honor God in my daily life and work.

I would be the first to admit, it is not exactly earth-shaking. This handful of simple, straightforward commitments is not about to change the world. But it did change my world. This has been the overall rhythm of my life for the last nine years. It is not wildly visionary, which is perhaps why I have been able to maintain it over the years. This is how I live now… but it is not the way I lived before. These dozen commitments represented a gentle alteration in course, a shift of a few degrees, which established new patterns of life for me. They opened me a little more to the grace of God. A week after I wrote them, I hardly noticed any difference. A month later, still not much. Now, almost a decade down the road, I see how following through these modest intentions has had a profound impact on every important area of my life.

4. Making a Choice

This leads us to the final part of our experiment: practice. You now have before you two documents, one describing your current rhythms of your life, and another outlining the rhythms that could be. They are not wildly divergent (at least, if you have exercised good sense and moderation, they should not be), but they are different. If you maintain the rhythms of your life now, you will continue to see pretty much the same results — the same growth and struggles, the same weaknesses and strengths. To adapt yourself to a different rhythm will mean change: perhaps greater closeness to Christ, perhaps more openness to growth; perhaps also the exposure of new weaknesses and struggles. A personal Rule of Life will not make you perfect or solve all your problems. It may well help you, though, to become more intentional about living your life for Jesus Christ.

So I would like to invite you to experiment. For the next few months, try setting the new rhythm. Be prepared to make mistakes. Learn from the experience, make changes, and try again. If you need to, come back and rewrite the whole Rule from scratch — remember, it is a regula not a regulation, a guide not a law. See if it helps you live more straight and true, helps you become more open to God’s marvelous grace.

And then, after perhaps three or four months, come back and compare your two sheets of paper again. Ask yourself just one question: if you could go back to your old patterns and routines, would you choose to?

What will be the rhythm of your life?

Originally published in Renovaré Expressions, circa 2010.

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